Is Rishi Sunak Boris Johnson’s greatest success or failure? The Chancellor of the Exchequer is now the only high-profile Conservative politician who still has a net positive approval rating. In the polls, the Labour leader Keir Starmer has overtaken Johnson on leadership ratings and fitness to be prime minister, while confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic continues to tumble. The Conservatives’ economic competence and Sunak’s abilities are the only two areas – other than Brexit – where Labour trails the government. Sunak is surely responsible for what, if anything, remains of the Tory opinion poll lead.
His presence also helps to contain internal Conservative opposition. Many Tories take comfort in the belief that they have an election-saving option of subbing out the Prime Minister for a more popular and more competent alternative. This means, as one Conservative MP mused to me recently, that the party is less likely to panic, which, ironically, maximises Johnson’s chances of fighting the next election.
But Sunak’s success is itself a product, and a symbol, of Johnson’s failure. At the start of the year, Downing Street talked excitedly of the revolutions it would set in motion with its new parliamentary majority of 86. The significance of the majority’s size was overstated, in part because the Conservative Party had become accustomed over the past decade to governing in coalition, in minority or with a very small majority. In reality, the majorities enjoyed by Harold Wilson in 1966-70 and Tony Blair in 2005-07 were comparable to Johnson’s. And the fate of “In Place of Strife”, Wilson’s white paper proposing to remake the British labour market, or Blair’s plan for ID cards, showed that such a majority is not sufficient to prevent a well-organised and committed group of MPs from defeating the government.
However, Downing Street aggravated the problem through neglect and belligerence. Cabinet reshuffles always create enemies, but Johnson’s team almost delighted in doing so, while the Prime Minister has made little effort to cultivate good feeling among MPs. In government, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both had a “sacked ministers club” – though with a more diplomatic name – and took great care to make the departed feel valued, and therefore less likely to make trouble on the back benches. David Cameron would frequently find commissions and other back-bench projects to keep the dismissed onside and occupied. The lack of any similar effort from Johnson’s Downing Street has left dispossessed Conservative MPs looking for a hobby – and they have found it in dissent.
The most dangerous development for Johnson is the work that Theresa Villiers, a committed Brexiteer and former environment secretary, is putting into campaigning to protect agricultural standards. The risk is twofold. The government is quietly split between committed environmentalists – who, led by Michael Gove and supported by Zac Goldsmith, want to use Brexit to pursue sustainability and higher food standards – and followers of Liz Truss, who want to use Brexit to strike as many trade deals as possible. To make matters worse, the British public is nervous about changes to food and farming. That Villiers can’t be painted as either uninformed or an embittered Remainer makes the row harder to contain – and is one reason the prospect of a meaningful trade agreement with the United States, regardless of how Brexit works out or who wins the US presidential election in November, is vanishing.
That problem is echoed across Conservative policy. Few believe that the government’s most radical moves, particularly on housing and planning, can survive the parliamentary process intact. Downing Street has already had to soften its plans to breach international law with the Internal Market Bill, albeit in a way that still leaves the prospects of an EU-UK trade deal in jeopardy. Even the government’s ability to continue the lockdown measures is in doubt because of the large number of libertarian Conservative rebels who bitterly oppose them.
Here, as so often, Sunak is an exception to the rule. Unlike Johnson, he has maintained a serious parliamentary operation and takes care to consult MPs; a vital part of being able to pass legislation and do his job properly. In a sign that No 10 has belatedly understood the problem, the Prime Minister’s aide Dominic Cummings recently urged special advisers to make sure their ministers were taking the time to meet MPs. As one participant wryly remarked, last autumn any adviser who spent time cultivating MPs, or encouraging their minister to do so, was liable to be sacked.
The Prime Minister can’t even be credited with unearthing an overlooked star. While Rishi Sunak was, until this year, relatively unknown among journalists, many of whom derided him as Johnson’s puppet, he was familiar to Conservative MPs. He arrived in parliament in 2015 – like David Miliband in 2001 or Nick Clegg in 2005 – as someone expected to reach the commanding heights of their party.
But the biggest reason Sunak’s success is Johnson’s failure is that his appointment was meant to end, not entrench, the era of the super-chancellor. Sunak’s promotion in February happened because his predecessor, Sajid Javid, refused to accept the loss of control over his own advisers. It was meant to enable a newly powerful Downing Street, in which the Prime Minister was the dominant partner. Instead, Sunak and the Treasury are in control of the economic response to Covid-19. It will be the decisions made by the Chancellor that determine the political future of the Prime Minister – a symptom of the extent to which Johnson’s organisational revolution has already failed.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union